Why corporate ‘tone of voice’ guidelines fail

Either vague or self-contradictory—and sometimes both—such efforts to codify ‘brand personality’ rarely do much beyond perplexing the writers they’re supposed to help.

Most large organizations have at least one set of guidelines for writers.

Often, one of the documents you’ll be told to read before you start writing will be all about capturing the firm’s “brand personality” through tone of voice. Invariably, this document is pointless.

Why? Because:

1. It rarely tells professional writers anything they don’t already know about good writing.

2. It’s largely ignored or misunderstood by everyone else because they have their own idea of what sounds appropriately “corporate.”

Let me give you an example. A copywriter I know recently worked with a client who gave him a guide to communicating their brand. He sent me a copy of the document, which helpfully explained its purpose thus:

It’s important that the tonality of our communications convey the unique characteristics of [XYZ company]…

…To ensure that we always “sound” like [XYZ company], we’ve shared a few writing strategies to help bring the personality attributes to life in copy.

The document then went on to list the various “personality attributes” of the brand and how the firm’s written documents should reflect them.

First up, the writing style was to be “honest,” “respectful,” and “credible.” One wonders what dishonest, disrespectful, and non-credible copy might look like (and what sort of professional writer would produce such work anyway).

An imperative on imperatives

Next, he was informed that the writing style should involve “active voice,” “shorter sentences,” and “use of imperatives and more direct language in calls to action.”

This is a little more helpful, I suppose. However, if you’re a half-decent pro, chances are you already write in an active, imperative style with short sentences anyway.

If you’re not a pro, are these guidelines much help? I wouldn’t mind betting most people who need to be told to write in the “active voice” are likely to ask, “What’s ‘active voice’?”

Only this morning a client told me a sentence I’d written in the active voice was “too passive.”

Illustrations in the style guide conveying the difference between the active and passive voices would have helped.

Ditto “use of imperatives and more direct language in calls to action.” How many non-writers could identify the imperative form of the verb? What does “direct language” look like? Again, an example would have helped.

As for “short sentences,” does the average non-writer really know how short is “short”? (Hint: not in my experience).

Wouldn’t it have been better to give a word limit? No sentence longer than 24 words, say? Or at least to tell style guide users that if they can’t read a sentence aloud in one breath, it’s too long?

Inclusive, descriptive, and unembellished

Next, our writer was informed the writing style should demonstrate “impeccable understanding of subject matter.” (Is this really a question of style or a question of having the courage and common sense to make sure you’re properly briefed on the topic?)

The style was also to be “deliberate and specific in the language we use. Defining.”

I like the sound of writing that’s “deliberate and specific” (as opposed to unwitting and vague). However, I’m not sure what’s meant by a “defining” writing style. An example might have helped.

Finally, the writing style was to be “inclusive” by using “descriptive language” (use lots of adjectives?) while being “straightforward and unembellished” (don’t use lots of adjectives?).

Again, an example of this inclusively descriptive but unembellished style might have clarified things (if only in the mind of the writer of the style guide).

Anyway, my writer friend did his best to interpret these instructions, largely by following his own common-sense rules for good writing. Like most pro copywriters, these involved producing something punchy, short, and as far as possible devoid of vague, formulaic corporate blurbage about delivering excellence through unrivalled solutions blah blah blah.

As if to prove that the people in the organization didn’t really understand their own tone of voice guidelines (actually, who could really blame them?), my writer friend was told he hadn’t quite captured what the company’s brand manager had in mind.

It wasn’t his fault, he was told. It was just that, as an outsider, he didn’t really understand the firm’s culture.

Could he, then, produce something more like this? “This” being a document headlined “Comprehensive solutions to grow your business.”

Hold on tight; this won’t be pretty…

He forwarded me a copy, knowing I would enjoy its contents. The document began with the following, 47-word, full-stop-free example of the passive voice:

Our full suite of conventional and Islamic services and solutions across Transaction Banking, Financial Markets, Corporate Finance and Principal Finance are supported by an award-winning ecommerce platform and a Global Research team that deliver a unique combination of global and local perspectives of major and emerging markets.

(Incidentally, every financial client I’ve ever worked with boasts a “unique combination of global and local perspectives.”)

The document went on to mention the firm’s “full suite of cutting-edge, customised solutions” and its “award-winning fully integrated electronic channels.” Other formulaic guff included this 30-word masterpiece of corporate-speak:

Leveraging our extensive network and unrivalled knowledge of emerging markets, we offer a comprehensive range of innovative and award winning risk management, financing and investment solutions to meet clients’ needs.

My writer friend concluded it would have been more helpful if the style guide had simply said:

We sound just like every other big corporation out there. Cobble together some meandering nonsense about leveraging solutions and unrivaled this, that, and the other, and you’ll have our tone of voice nailed.

What’s your experience of corporate tone of voice guidelines? Do you agree they’re worse than useless? Or have you ever seen or used a tone of voice document that worked well?

A version of this article first appeared on Doris & Bertie.


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